The days are getting shorter and the air is growing crisp. I love that word, crisp. Want to know a word I don’t like? Autumn. What a useless, unromantic, pseudo-sophisticated sounding word. “Spring” so perfectly captures the essence of the sudden gushing forth of life following its long, dreary winter dormancy, and in a way that “autumn” can never even approach for the season properly known as the Fall. Ah, there we go: the Fall; life’s realization that winter’s encroach is nigh and then its slow, symphomic tumble to the Earth below in peaceful resignation. Sure, the leaves are dying, but have you ever appreciated how happily they do it? They deck themselves in such gay colors as to make my queer heart approach jealousy and glimmer so glamorously as to make even the sternest curmudgeon soften if only a little. If only all life were as beautiful at the moment of death, then maybe we wouldn’t dread it so.
There are so many things I love about the Fall: the way the wind moves through the leaves, the way the leaves move through the wind, the way the light seems somehow different, a bit like candlelight when the wick grows short. I love how people smile a bit more fully and the way couples hold each other a little more tightly. I love the way tiny ice crystals grow on dusky window panes and then recede with the warmth of dawn. It’s been said that people always want what they don’t have, and maybe that’s true in the dead of winter or beneath the oppressive steaminess of summer, possibly even amid the occasionally tiresome clamor of spring, but I can safely say that when I have the Fall, the Fall is the only thing I want. It’s sweet, but not overpoweringly so, and has a delightful spice to it, sort of like a crisp ginger snap. Ha!, there’s that word again. On a related note, someone remind me, why aren’t there any ginger snaps in Korea?
Want to know some more things I love about the Fall? I love that feeling I get when I wrap a warm knitted scarf around my neck for the first time and I love the way the stillness takes hold in the night air. Summer nights are full of the chirping of crickets, the singing of tree frogs, the blare of cicadas and those things are fine for a time, but I do tire of them. It’s unfortunate that human life doesn’t end in the same resplendent way that the summer does. While the leaves are at the apex of their beauty just a short time before they break free and fall to Earth, the frailty that accompanies the end of most human life begins to set long before old age. While there is beauty of a sort in death, it certainly isn’t the aesthetic kind. It’s perhaps most unfortunate that by the time most of us begin to understand just how magical the world and the universe containing it truly are, their sights and sounds have already grown dim to our eyes and ears.
It’s nice when you can find a poem that enables a cleaner transition from the concrete to the abstract and this is one of those occasions. Poetry isn’t really my thing, I have to admit—I can count the number of poems I enjoy using just my fingers and a few toes—but there’s a particularly beautiful one to me I first read in high school called “Spring and Fall to a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. One of the reasons I like Hopkins is for his habit of creating new words rich in imagery, something I enjoy doing myself when the opportunity presents itself, and this poem in particular is one of my favorites from him:
Márgarét, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
I was four years old when I first became aquatinted with loss. Granny Furr, my great-grandmother whom I even now remember quite well, succumbed to her own physical frailty and to the cares of time. I can remember the time when I stuck my tongue out at her after she’d said I should drink water instead of soda and them got put in time-out. I knew I was in trouble when she said, “Get out there [in the living room] and sit down!” I can remember sneaking across the street to play cards with Aunt Mary and then having to go in time-out again when Granny tracked me down. I can remember riding in her Oldsmobile (which I called the Batmobile) through a town called Phillips (which I called Fruit Loops) on our way to Coalgate to run some sort of errand; what errand, I can’t recall. There was a moment, maybe a year or two after she died, when the realization that she was gone finally set in. It was a non-notable day otherwise and my dad noticed that I was sad about something. It had dawned on me that I couldn’t see her anymore and that was a difficult feeling for me to process, as I’m sure it is for everyone when they first experience it. I just sat in my tiny rocking chair and cried for a while. In this world of beginnings and endings, none can go long without being compelled to tackle with and (hopefully) make peace with the inevitability of loss, as I was eventually able to do.
All of us are born mortal and, in a very real sense, we spend all our lives dying. The lifespan of man is a sort of Fall unto itself. Maybe this is an oversimplification, but I really think a lot of people live their lives so fearful—or willfully ignorant—of their own mortality that they neglect to fully experience the world to whatever degree they are able to do so. In fact, I really think a man can only truly appreciate his life once he’s made peace with his death.
Margaret, young though she is, has guessed the existential significance in the falling of the leaves after the frost. The words to express that realization might elude her, but she has guessed, as I began to that year or two after Granny Furr’s coffin had been lowered into the ground, that all of life’s experiences and even the people we love are like leaves falling from trees, beautiful and vibrant one moment and then brown and blown away in the wind the next. We could sit down and weep at the futility of it all, but what would be better is if we could just reach out and catch them as they fall. The choice itself is futile, perhaps, but those are the rules we have to play by. That’s what gives death the potential to make life more beautiful: it needn’t catch us wholly by surprise. Sure, sadness accompanies any ending or loss but foreknowledge of its approach enables us to truly celebrate the present. That cognizance is part of what makes us human. And, perhaps we are most alive once we’ve embraced the death that will eventually come to all things, including ourselves. That’s no easy task and I’m not even sure I’ve reached that point myself, but amid the oranges, yellows, crimsons, and purples of the Fall, I can be reminded that all things—good and bad—come to an end and I can be joyful even so.